Tryouts Need Not Be Feared

023 TryoutsMention tryouts to youth coaches and you’ll hear the words hate and dread a lot.  Tryouts are fraught with politics and issues with parents, not to mention the unpleasant business of having to cut kids which no one wants to do at the younger ages.  All of this makes them difficult to run and much longer than necessary.  Simplifying the format can cut through all the [expletive-deleted] and angst.  And after all, shouldn’t tryouts bring some excitement from watching young kids “rise to the occasion”, the possibility of adding some new talent to the ball club and the anticipation of a new season with its infinite possibilities when your record is 0-0?

My team is part of a town-run program which is a great thing as it keep the costs low and eliminates the need to force kids to play year round to help justify a high cost.  To reduce the potential for issues surrounding tryouts and politics and parents (and I’ve heard there have been some in the past), the head coach is the only adult allowed on the field during tryouts.  Ever try throwing BP or hitting fungoes with a clipboard in your hand?  Personally I am against the mollification, but you can’t change the fact parents see what they want to see no matter what actually happens on the field.

The parental blindness also leads to kids trying out who really shouldn’t.  At the top-end of the ability spectrum, you’ve got kids who throw hard.  At tryouts at the lower end of the spectrum you have kids who can’t catch the ball.  Hello safety issue.  No one likes cutting kids, but sometimes you really need to for the kid’s sake.  And while I love the fact our program’s policy is to field as many teams as the number of kids who come out permits, that doesn’t mean the reason a kid tries out for a summer travel team shouldn’t be a bit beyond “Johnny just loves baseball so much.”  The parents ought to realize this or at least temper their expectations.  Let me put it this way, my son loves hockey, but he doesn’t really know how to skate.  If I brought him to a travel team’s tryouts, whose fault would it be when he doesn’t make it?

Yet in order to appease those same parents, tryouts typically become long, overblown affairs.  Parents have a hard time believing it’s possible to evaluate a player without hours upon hours of tryouts.  I’ve seen coaches therefore rotate the players through every spot on the field as if a kid is trying out for a particular position which only leads to chaos and lengthens the process.  If a kid this age has good mechanics when fielding grounders, he can field them at any spot in the infield.  I would argue there are only two positions to evaluate players at during tryouts (at least at the 9U level): generic infield and generic outfield.  Sure you want to look for potential pitchers and catchers but you need more than a few kids in these slots as a nine-year-old isn’t pitching or catching a complete game, and therefore you’re not in a position to take a kid whose only asset is a live pitching arm for example.

To combat all this, I run tryouts based on the way any open tryout I ever went to was run, the only difference being everyone participates in each drill.  Four stations to evaluate speed, fielding, throwing and hitting then a short session on pitching and catching simply to see if there are any potential additions to the rotation and if anyone who fancies themselves a catcher can receive.  Quick and easy and I’m done inside of one hour and 30 minutes.  If I were allowed to have other coaches assist in the evaluations, I would even run some stations in parallel to keep the kids from standing around at all.  In order:

  • Warm-ups and throwing to loosen the arms: I pay attention to how the kids throw when they are loosening up.  As the Ripken brothers say, you can often tell who’s going to win a game by which team throws better in the pregame.  The same is true for tryouts.
  • 40 yard dash: People have told me I should have them run from home plate second base, but you can always teach kids baserunning technique.
  • Four grounders at short with a throw to first: If you can field a ground ball at one infield position, you can field them at any infield position.  And if you can make a throw from shortstop, you can make it from anywhere.  Here I’m looking for feet, hands and throwing accuracy on balls directly at the fielder, to either side and on one they have to charge.
  • Two grounders in center field with a throw home: This one is more about making a strong, accurate throw than anything else though I will look for their approach to the ball and their transition from fielding to throwing.
  • Two fly balls in center with throw home: Are they able to judge fly balls?  Again a decent throw is a good thing.
  • Eight swings at the plate: Eight is more than enough.
  • Pitching and Catching: Five fastballs (which is all kids this age should be throwing anyway.)  Again here I am just looking to see if I have any potential pitchers.  Given a nine-year-old isn’t going to throw more than two innings a game I need a lot of them to pitch.  The catchers are there because a) the pitcher needs someone to throw to and b) I want to see if the kids who want to catch can receive pitches.  I don’t make all the kids catch, only the ones who are interested.  And I don’t do catcher throwing evaluations because it doesn’t matter at this age as it takes multiple miracles to throw a runner out (here’s a post about why receiving is more important than throwing from youth catchers.)

That’s it.  Nothing more.  Why make it any longer than needed?  I’ve been told you need more fielding (you don’t), you need to move the kids around to different positions (you don’t) and you need to give them more swings (it’s wishful thinking a kid who has missed eight is magically going to hit the ninth and you’re evaluating the swing not the outcome.)  Having each kid participate in exactly the same drill gives me a much better way to compare them.  And because every kid participates in every drill, it’s much harder for parents to argue the process wasn’t fair or their kid didn’t get a fair shot.   Doesn’t mean it won’t happen.  It just means it’s a hard argument to raise.

This year because we’ve moved the tryouts to much earlier in the year, I am thinking about including a scrimmage (on a different date) which is often the second part of the open tryout format.  While I’m loathe to make the tryout process any longer, I do look forward to making tryouts a little more fun for the kids while at the same time giving me a sense of their “game faces.”

Hey, now I’m starting to get excited.  Tryouts are around the corner.  That’s a good thing.

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